THE African National Congress (ANC), which established itself as the undisputed voice of the black majority during three decades of exile, banning, and repression, is poised to become South Africa's first black-led government after the elections in two weeks.
In the four years since the ANC returned to the country from exile in June 1990, it has made an astonishing transformation away from a liberation movement - schooled in the philosophies and rhetoric of old-style Eastern European socialism - toward a modern political party having to come to grips with the awesome responsibilities of the post-apartheid era.
Through the statesmanlike leadership of Nelson Mandela, who from his prison cell cooperated with white minority leaders to find a negotiated settlement, the ANC has helped broker a comprehensive and complex transition to democracy.
Recent opinion polls indicate that the ANC is likely to win between 59 and 72 percent of the vote in a ballot based on proportional representation for electing a national parliament and nine provincial governments.
If the ANC wins two-thirds of the vote, a scenario that opposition parties are using to mobilize support for an anti-ANC vote, it will have the power to finalize the interim constitution on its own. That would allow militant voices within its ranks to be greatly strengthened.
The strongest argument in favor of an ANC vote is that the country needs a strong government to heal the deep divisions of the apartheid era and to build a new nation.
``The ANC has the best chance of achieving stability in South Africa, which is absolutely essential if business and investor confidence is to be restored and the country is to grow and prosper,'' says ANC legislator David Dalling, a white South African who quit the liberal Democratic Party two years ago.
``It is vital for the future unity of the country that the minority groupings take the hand of friendship so generously offered to them by the leadership of black South Africa,'' he says.
But most whites, while thankful for Mr. Mandela's leadership, still harbor deep suspicions of the ANC's commitment to democratic principles and a free enterprise system.
Concerns over violence
There is fear among minorities and a growing number of blacks that the ANC does not have the capacity to end the rampant political violence rooted in a power struggle between the ANC and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
But Mandela insists that, despite the turbulence and bloodshed of the past four years, which he says is the result of apartheid, unimaginable progress has been made toward establishing a democratic society.
``We have adopted the country's first democratic constitution in spite of constant threats of civil war,'' he told a gathering of foreign journalists recently.
Mandela has set an example of tolerance and reconciliation by initiating and sustaining talks with the troublesome white right and keeping open lines to Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha in the face of a seemingly insurmountable political deadlock.
``I have an obligation to bring black and white together in South Africa,'' he said.
The irony of the ANC's likely victory at the April 26-28 ballot is that the glue that has held together its disparate components is almost certain to dissolve. Trade union and civic leaders are likely to develop a different agenda from a government seeking to balance the demands of conflicting constituencies.
``The ANC will have to accept that its trade union and civic alliance partners will soon go into opposition with the new government,'' says political scientist Tom Lodge from liberal Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
The ANC will inherit a culturally diverse and deeply divided society with a sophisticated economy and infrastructure, but one beset with the massive socioeconomic problems facing a developing society. Consequently, it has developed a detailed Reconstruction and Development Program to redirect state resources toward socioeconomic upliftment of an oppressed majority.
The development plan, which the ANC estimates will cost $11 billion over five years, has met with a cautious welcome from business leaders. Much groundwork has been laid for negotiating a social contract between the new government, business, and labor.
The ANC appears to have accepted that economic growth must drive the development process and has vowed to cooperate with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Mandela, whose immense stature and authority among black South Africans has put the ANC in an unassailable position, has kept his prison-cell promise that he would work for a compromise between the black demand for majority rule and the white demand for minority protection.
The product is a transitional government of national unity that will accommodate all major parties in government, including the National Party (NP) that invented and implemented apartheid.
The interim constitution adopted by multiparty negotiators offers a complex set of checks and balances to prevent untrammeled majority rule and ensure that minorities will continue to have a voice at the highest levels of government.
While the ANC is assured of between 70 and 80 percent of black support, it is finding the coloreds (mixed race), Indian, and white minorities - which together account for about 29 percent of all voters - are leaning toward President Frederik de Klerk's ruling NP.
``I have the greatest respect for a leader like Mandela and what he has done in bringing his constituency around to a compromise,'' says Kenny Subramoney, an Indian from Natal province. ``But I fear what lies beneath Mandela.''
Radical ANC spokesmen often challenge the limits set by its more moderate leaders.
``The ANC has managed the transformation to a modern political party at the top levels,''Professor Lodge says. ``But at the lower levels, it remains a liberation movement.''
Ties to Communist Party
Members of the colored community in the Western Cape, whom opinion polls show could clinch a NP victory in the province, are even more outspoken about ANC shortcomings - particularly its alliance with the small but influential South African Communist Party. The ANC is retaining its alliance with the SACP for the purposes of the election, and communists are represented in the ANC lists in far greater numbers than is reflected by their electoral support.
ANC officials argue that the bond is historical - the SACP was one of the ANC's earliest allies and has been loyal ever since. But Lodge predicts a conflict of interests over economic policies between the two parties will manifest itself soon after the ANC takes over the reins of government.
The ANC also appears to have lost electoral support as a result of the political violence in downtown Johannesburg on March 28 when 11 Inkatha demonstrators were shot dead by ANC security guards outside the organization's headquarters.
Mandela's subsequent refusal to allow a police investigation of the premises and several eye-witness accounts of the shooting have left many unanswered questions. The ANC's lack of public remorse about the death of the Inkatha supporters has also drawn strong criticism.
* Part of a series of occasional articles on South Africa's transition to democracy.